Modern Traumawork in Hypnotherapy

For those of you who like your blog entries brief and to the point, here are the main points:

* The trauma treatment modality I use is an age regression technique where you go back as your present day self to help the young part of you that has been traumatized. This way of age regressing is called hypermnesia and is different than how age regression (and a lot of traumawork in general) usually happens, which is called revivication.

* This technique, which I call the Turner Age Regression (after Maureen Turner, its originator), tends to be less overwhelming than techniques that depend on revivication / abreaction.

* However, like any trauma work, it still requires preparation. In particular, this technique depends on (a) stable, deep trance and (b) self-compassion: the willingness to accept, love and care for yourself, especially the younger self that was traumatized.

* The science behind this technique is pretty clear: in deep hypnosis, we access trauma imprints are stored in the midbrain (I talk more about the amygdala and the periaquaductal gray nucleus below). Sensorimotor Psychology therapist Janina Fischer talks about this in her book, Healing the Fragmented Selves of Trauma Survivors. While she's talking about somatic therapy, it seems reasonable to me (and Maureen) that deep hypnosis allows even clearer access to this unconscious area.

* Advantages of this method: humane, utilizes a person's own healing capacity, and fast and effective once the preliminary preparation is done.

More detail

Age regression

Like hypnosis as a whole, age regression brings up some weird ideas for people. Let's get those out of the way first.

Am I talking about going back to your past lives, when you were a pirate or the despotic Queen of Prussia?


Am I talking about remembering when you were abducted by aliens?

Very very unlikely.

Does it involve remembering things that never happened?

Argh. No-- more about that later.

But, age regression is when you go back to something in your past. And there are two ways it happens. It can either happen as a revivication or as a hypermnesia.

A revivication, like the word suggests, is when you go back and relive an experience. Sometimes people do this in dreams. Or, they do it unbidden, in traumatic flashbacks. Somethings they relive positive experiences and it’s a good time. Reliving and working through past trauma is the classic "method" of trauma work has worked since time immemorial. Even before we had a name for hypnosis and before we had ideas like psychological trauma, people were reliving experiences to confront and overcome overwhelming past experiences. This happens quite naturally. Unfortunately, however, since time immemorial, people have also been re-traumatized and their symptoms worsened by revivication if not done or prepared for properly.

Because of it's so tricky to do well, for a long time, new trauma modalities involved new ways to "control the abreaction." Abreaction basically refers to the huge upwelling of emotional energy (adrenaline, fear, disgust, shame, terror, among others) that comes up when reliving a trauma. Essentially, all trauma work that primarily utilizes revivication / abreaction involves slowing the process, going through the whole thing slowly, carefully, in chunks, or sections, or in a special way, so this isn't overwhelming.

After Freud poopoo'd hypnosis and as the western world has embraced Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, the hypnotic methods of trauma work have been mostly ignored. Instead, other, non-hypnotic methods were developed. However, for a long time, they all basically follow the same rules as these original abreactive methods: You re-vivify a past experience, but do it in a controlled manner. However, because they don't involve deep trance, you also have to do it over and over again. EMDR has become the gold standard for this for a couple reasons: first, it's easy to learn for clinicians (especially compared to hypnosis) and second, because it controls that abreaction reasonably well and in a non-trance (or light trance) state. I'm sure EMDR therapists will read this and say I'm unfairly lumping EMDR in with all that came before. So to be clear, let me say it's possibly the best abreactive trauma method: you don't have to talk about everything, and you're mostly just focusing on the worst part of the traumatic memory. But it's still based on revivication and abreaction and has many of the same problems: it takes a lot of inner resources and strength to go confront demons from the past, repeatedly taking bites out of them and slowly digest them in pieces. Typically trauma work is done in a series of phrases. Actually working with the trauma is "phase II." "Phase I" is the preparatory work. (For those who are curious, there's also a Phase III, and it's about moving on and establishing meaningful life now that you've dealt with the trauma.)

More recently, trauma modalities that aren't abreactive in function have come on the scene. These are therapies that don't require the processing or re-living of traumatic events to get over them. The hypnosis modality that I use to treat trauma is one of these new kinds of trauma therapies.

Hypermnesia Age Regression: going back with new information

Hypermnesia means vivid remembering. This is another way to go back to a past experience. In hypermnesia, you go back as your current day self and you're there with your past self, the one going through something traumatic. It's a third person stance, not first person.

To give a flippant example:

Revivication is like Luke Skywalker reliving the seminal reveal of modern cinema where Darth Vader says, "Luke! I am your father!" -- If Luke did an abreaction-based therapy, he'd do a lot of preparation, then he'd have to relive that moment, feeling all the complex feelings (humiliation? anger? sadness? love? shame?) in therapy until it wasn't overwhelming anymore -- until all the emotions were processed through. If he was doing Prolonged Exposure, he'd be telling the story outloud over and over. If he did EMDR, he'd just do in his mind while getting bilaterally stimulated in some way. If he was doing an old-school hypnosis trauma method, he would do it intensely, probably just once or twice and the therapist would advise him to slow it down, rewind, skip ahead, to wear impenetible magic armor, while doing it and the like. But he'd still be re-vivifying it using all these methods.

Hypermnesia, on the other hand, is like Luke going back to the scene and seeing it with older, wiser eyes that are informed by everything that comes after and how everything turns out in the end. So Luke goes back to that scene, but it's like "end-of-Episode-6-Luke" visiting his "Episode 5" self and saying to him, "It's true, Luke, but--don't worry! You and I are gonna get through this together and you get your father back in the end, even if it's bittersweet. Things are going to be okay!"

How it works

As I note above, I call this method the Turner Age Regression Technique, after its creator, Maureen Turner.

As you might imagine, going back to the worst events of your life isn't a good time no matter what. Rather than it being able digesting all those old feelings, though, this method hinges on your current day self's ability to be compassionate and present for the "part of you" that is still stuck in a traumatic experience.

In short, it's based on self-compassion. Luckily, self-compassion is a trainable psychological skill and has lots of benefits, including better self-care and general resiliency.

So rather than Phase I of trauma work being about training for the rigors and overwhelm of reliving some of the worst moments of life, the preparatory work in my modality involves learning how to go into hypnosis deeply, and learning how to love yourself. I regular help people develop self-compassion if they need more skill at it. I also usually suggest doing some anchoring of inner resources if that's needed. So, for instance, if a person had a terrible experience that felt out of control, we'll anchor the opposite -- an experience they felt very in control and safe, as preparation for the trauma work.

You may be thinking at this point: "this sounds interesting, but does it actually work?"

And the answer is yes.

In deep hypnosis, you can access parts of the mind that are deeply unconscious. In neuroanatomy, we know that the brain areas that are responsible for traumatic memories and imprints are in the limbic system, in and around a small walnut-sized region called the amygdala. The amygdala's job scans the environment for signs of something bad that happened in the past. Sometimes the signs aren't obvious to us consciously, and sometimes they're obvious. But when the amygdala registers those signs, it triggers alarms. People usually just call this "trauma triggering" and if you've experienced it, you probably know what I'm talking about, even if you don't know exactly what all your triggers are.

A stone age example

Imagine a prehistoric human wandering around the savanna. Imagine she sees a pretty rock formation in the distance and while she's looking at it, a lion jumps out at her and starts chasing her. Later (after she gets away from the lion), imagine she's walking around on the savanna again and she sees that same rock formation. Her amygdala is going to register that formation and scream, "lion!" -- (and not the Alan Ginsberg type). If we had a time machine and we went back and asked her if she knew why the rock formation made her feel ready to attack something (fight), want to run (flight), or made her feel like she was out of her body (freeze / dissociation), she may or may not connect those rocks to her previous incident with a lion. She may not even know she feels that way because of the rock formation. She might even be running or fainting before she's even aware of seeing the rock formation. The amygdala's concern isn't understanding -- it's self-preservation.

The amygdala still does this for us even though very few of us have to run from actual lions. Instead, we experience fight, flight and freeze responses to overwhelming social situations, to abuse, bullying, non-consentual sexual situations, assaults, drug experiences, vicarious trauma and to combat. The trigger (like the rock formation) can be anything 15 minutes before or after a traumatic event.

In the Turner Age Regression, we go deep enough that we can talk to the correlating part of the mind -- the part of the mind that's stuck watching for signs of a terrible experience from the past. We connect to that part through the original, earliest traumatic situation, and we give that part new information: for instance, that the event has passed and that it won't happen again -- that the time to be watching for another middle school bullying situation (for example) is over because middle school is over. This allows that system to relax, the triggers go away, and (in my experience) a lot of beneficial life energy is freed up.

This is hard to talk about because it seems a bit far fetched that you can get into a state of mind where you can communicate with your midbrain. It's worth noting that even non-hypnotic methods are doing this, but, because they're not in deep trance, they usually require a lot of repetition, like I mentioned earlier. With EMDR, for instance, you might go over a single incident 20 times. In Prolonged Exposure Therapy, a CBT method, you might go over it a hundred times (and if you think that's grueling, the 50-90% of military personal who drop out of this trauma treatment agree). In contrast, in deep trance, we can just communicate more directly. Done right, once is enough.

Another way of making my point is that weirder things are well-documented with hypnosis. Take, for example, cases of people communicating with their hindbrain to do things like lower their blood pressure or pulse rate, or to stop a migraine. Or even people who can block out pain (another hindbrain function) and go into surgery without anesthesia. In reality, such things are possible. Easy? Well, no. But communication reasonably directly with the limbic brain? Definitely doable with a little preparation.

In fact, I like this method so much because, after the preparation, it takes a lot less time and suffering than others I've seen. I would like to say it's easy, but no trauma work is easy. It's definitely fair to say that it's easier, though. In addition, remember how I was talking about utilization and the uniqueness of each person in a previous blog entry? This method, though somewhat directive, is unique to each person and relies on their innate wisdom and healing abilities. I've yet to see two people do this process exactly the same way. As Maureen Turner has noted, in this method, the therapist is a coach: it's the client who goes back and rescues themselves.

The only case I might recommend a different method is when the trauma is an isolated one-time event. For instance, if someone was in a car accident and it was the only traumatic thing in their life, it might be faster to do EMDR or ART, which require less preparation for simple cases: you don't have to learn how to go into deep trance -- you just maybe do a little inner resourcing and then work directly with the isolated incident. In my experience, though, most people struggling with trauma are not struggling with single events. In those with situations that are more complicated than one trauma, Turner Age Regressions are the fastest, least difficult method I've seen.

You may be thinking, "what about ___?!" where ___ is some element I haven't really addressed in working with trauma. I apologize -- I've been trying to keep this entry brief and trauma treatment is a big, complicated thing to talk about. Feel free to comment below or to raise a point with me via email.

Next I'll be talking about physical (psychosomatic) problems and hypnotherapy.